Last week, internal Facebook research revealed Instagram’s toxic effects on the body image of some young people, especially girls.
A study by Facebook of teenage Instagram users in the US and UK found that over 40% of those who said they felt “unattractive” said the feelings started while using Instagram.
Boys are also affected, with 14% would have said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves.
To our knowledge, there have been no reports from Facebook on the impacts on young people who identify as various genders. This group is particularly high risk of developing body image problems.
The new information about the effects of Instagram on young people may be of concern to parents and may prompt some to want to ban their children from using social media. But this risks causing significant friction between parents and young people.
In addition, young people often find ways circumvent such prohibitions, making them self-destructive.
We suggest this is a great opportunity for parents to start an honest conversation with their kids about their online life. Parents can also encourage their children to make their online experiences more positive.
What we know about social media and body image
The Facebook reports come as no big surprise to body image researchers. A review published five years A few years ago, on the impacts of social networking sites, it was discovered that their use, among adults and young people, was linked to body image issues and eating disorders.
The review also showed that it’s not necessarily time spent on social media, but rather specific activities, such as viewing, editing, and posting idealized photos, that are particularly problematic.
Photos or “selfies” posted by celebrities, influencers and even friends on social media can be heavily staged and filtered to showcase the most engaging versions of themselves. Many of these photos are not a realistic representation of a person’s true appearance and serve to promote seemingly unattainable ideals.
People generally make comparisons between their own looks and those edited, unrealistic photos and tend to think of themselves as less attractive.
These types of comparisons can have a negative impact on body image and overall mood and can also promote increases in harmful diets and exercise behaviors. Notably, the impacts of social media comparisons are worse than in-person comparisons. This is because people perceive others on social media as much more attractive than themselves, but only slightly more attractive in person.
But all is not negative
Other research highlights the many positive aspects of social media. For people with eating disorders, social media and older internet spaces such as chat rooms and forums are often crucial spaces to share experiences and seek support. This adds an extra layer of complexity to the ongoing debates on social media and body image.
Social media is an essential component of the social life of young people, which allows them to maintain and form new friendships. This form of communication was vital during the COVID-19 pandemic blockages.
Social media activities are likely to be an important part of the identity of young people. So, where possible, parents could try to keep an open mind and resist the urge to criticize.
If parents don’t know how to use social media, they can ask their teen to take them on a tour of the platform (s) so they can better understand the content they are consuming.
Such a conversation paves the way for increasing social media awareness among parents and young people. Proficiency in social media involves the development of skills to critically analyze and evaluate media messages and images.
Research has shown that mastery of social media has positive impacts on the body image of young people. With the children, parents can discuss the use of filtering and editing of images and videos, and how what is shown online is not always reality.
What else can parents do?
Parents can also be a role model by eliminating appearance or weight-based conversations from their own vocabulary, in person and on social media. This includes conversations focused on our own body, such as commenting on the desire to lose weight.
Studies have shown parents are a powerful influence on how young people see and talk about their bodies. Parents can be kind in the way they talk about their own bodies and others, and praise their children for qualities other than their appearance.
Parents can be key players in helping young people make their time on social media more positive and rewarding.
Ask young people to check out how they feel when they use social media. If following particular accounts gives them a negative impression of themselves, ask them to stop following or mute that person. Instead, encourage them to follow accounts that inspire them in ways not based on appearance and foster a wide range of interests such as sports, travel, art and comedy.
Research has also shown that searching for and seeing positive body image content on social media can improve our sense of body image and the general mood.
To name a few, we recommend accounts like @theselfloveproject, @naturally_alice and @thenutritiontea on Instagram and @iweigh, @bodyposipanda and @beautyisonlyphotoshopdeep on Facebook.
Parents can also help their children develop a range of coping skills to help them counter any negative thoughts they might have about themselves during social and face-to-face use.
One of these skills is to be self-compassionate towards our body. Studies show this has positive effects. For example, the compassionate friend exercise involves asking young people, “How would you talk to your best friend if he told you he was having issues with his appearance?” Now talk to yourself the same way.
Some social media platforms, including Instagram, allow users to create multiple accounts. This can be useful if a young person sees too much content that makes them unhappy. Research shows the positive value of having several, perhaps even pseudonymized, social media accounts. Young people can express different sides of their personality and interests through different stories.
If you are looking for more information and advice for parents and youngsters, you can chat 24/7 with “KIT”, the body image positive chatbot that lives on the site. Website of the Papillon Foundation and in Facebook Messenger.
If this article has raised any issues for you, or if you are concerned about someone you know, visit Butterfly Foundation, or call our national helpline at 1800 33 4673.
This article was co-authored with Jasmine Fardouly, researcher at UNSW; Marilyn Bromberg, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Western Australia; Tama Leaver, Professor of Internet Studies, Curtin University and; Ysabel Gerrard Senior Lecturer in Digital Media and Society, University of Sheffield
This article originally appeared on The conversation.
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